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Technology takes cell phones to depth.

Within three of four years, Peter Cunningham suspects even the deepest part of Inco's mines in Sudbury should be as technologically connected as any modern office environment.

The research specialist with Inco's mine technology department has been working with more than 40 miners and foremen in the last couple of years to research how cell phones and other wireless technologies can be applied in underground mining. The aim is to create a converged network complete with voice mail, e-mail and other technologies to track people and assess how equipment is performing.

"It's very hard to see the whole mining process in real time," says Cunningham. "We can do the stationary equipment quite well (analyzing ventilation, pumps, conveyors, crushers) with various control systems, but with the mobile fleet, that part of the process isn't visualized very well."

Starting three years ago, Inco began the project to improve and enhance

mine communications beyond using open channel walkie-talkies. They wanted to start tracking people and equipment and see if modern conveniences such as voice mail and text messaging could be of any use.

Based on some previous research into the application of cell phone technology, the Inco mines technology department is talking about developing a single converged network for mine communications. This network would merge eight separate systems - all on separate fibres - into one network that carries all hard-wired and wireless LAN (local area network) to carry voice, Web-based video and transmit data.

After an 18-month trial at Inco's O.B. (ore body) 175 research mine, near North mine in Sudbury, a business case was produced indicating a promising return on investment within two years, as well as many "soft" benefits that create a more efficient mining process.

Building a converged Ethernet network, Cunningham says, would be more scaleable and flexible as more applications are added.

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With Inco's research mine scheduled to be permanently closed in December, he is drawing up some pilot programs to introduce wireless technologies into some of the company's operating mines.

Cunningham says their existing applications to track mobile equipment, use cell phones as an electronic tag-in for miners working alone, replace paper records with electronic worksheets through hand-held PDA applications and monitor operations data off manually-operated equipment.

Companies such as Hardline Solutions of Sudbury have been hired to do the tracking software and Emfinity hired to do some of the production data systems.

Wireless technology might open doors to applications such as location-based messaging used in the cell phone world.

That kind of technology could be used to alert workers when problems arise with equipment malfunctions or other control room alarms.

The "leaky" coaxial cable strung along mine tunnels designed to leak radio waves out would be replaced with underground micro cells, which would provide better coverage in all areas. Initial trials below ground show the signals have worked out well and there is broad user acceptance.

"One of the things we'd like to do is use existing infrastructure to provide the backbone. Most of the mines have fibre optics and Inco wants to use technologies that leverage each other. We've already got network interfaces to PCs underground, and it wouldn't take that much to tie in with Ethernet wireless LAN technology."

By IAN ROSS

Northern Ontario Business
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Title Annotation:Mining
Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:542
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